YE OLDEN TYME - Recollection of the Early Days of Bruce Mines
21 August 2019
In this edition of "Ye Olden Tyme" from 1925 written on the south-east shore of Basswood Lake at the old Komta Cottage on Portage Street, J.B. Dobie fondly recalls the early days of Bruce Mines – the closure of the mine and how it affected the populace of the community, and the beginnings of the pioneer store, first on a boat, then moving to shore after an altercation with the mining company was resolved.
J.B. started work at the Marks store in Bruce Mines in 1869 when the miners were still working the copper veins prosperously for the owners from England. From other editions of Ye Olden Tyme, J.B. describes how busy the store was in those early days with seven day a week, 16 hour work days being the norm dealing with the needs of the thriving mining operations and the outlying settlement of the farmland to the north and west and St Joseph Island across the channel.
J.B. Dobie met his future wife in Bruce Mines, Mary Carolyn Lobb, the daughter of a Cornish mine superintendent Samuel Lobb who had come over from England to start up the local copper mine, and Ellen Trainor who came from an Irish immigrant family who first landed in Bruce Mines then would later start up settlement of St. Joseph Island’s north eastern quadrant in the mid 1850’s.
With his father-in-law Samuel Lobb being one of the original and important operators of the Bruce copper mine, we’re sure that J.B. got a lot of first hand insight at the dinner table into the physical workings of the mine, the relationship between owner and worker, and the hardships experienced working underground in those early days.
The Thomas Marks store in Bruce Mines is where J.B. learned the mercantile business at which he would later prosper for over forty years in Thessalon. Mr. Marks was his mentor and eventually went into partnership with J.B. to open the Thessalon store in 1880 - which would eventually be bought out and operated under the name of Dobie and Co until the early 1920’s
J.B.’s connection with Bruce Mines was obviously very strong from his writing and one can tell that those formative years of his, learning his trade, were indelibly etched in his memory as he wrote these words many years later.
YE OLDEN TYME
By J.B. Dobie
To Editor of Algoma Advocate,
Komta Cottage, Basswood Lake, October 1925.
The news of the falling in of Worthington Mine, and the narrow escape of miners and railroaders, and passengers who had so recently crossed the place, which so suddenly became a yawning chasm, carrying the CPR road bed and some buildings with it into the depths of the mine. This caused a thrill to hundreds of thousands of people and a feeling of gratitude that no precious lives were lost, and even the property loss might have been much greater.
I am wondering how many people are left who will recall a similar occurrence in Bruce Mines more than fifty years ago. After the building of the large chemical plant in the Bruce and operating it for some time, during which the copper was shipped in big bars, the price of copper took a big drop. This was largely owing to the discovery of native copper in enormous quantities on the south shore of Lake Superior, and John Taylor and Sons, of London, England, found themselves unable to produce copper in Bruce Mines at a profit. So they ceased operations throwing all the men out of employment. Most of them went to the copper mines at Calumet and vicinity, some to the iron mines in Michig, and a few remained with the intention of taking up land in the vicinity and turning their attention to farming. Which they did, and became very successful farmers and many of their sons and daughters are still in the townships near the Bruce. A visit to the fall fair or a motor drive through the beautiful country outlying Bruce Mines and Thessalon will convince any one of the success which followed the efforts of those frugal, thrifty, honest, hardworking miners who when thrown out of employment, had faith in the possibilities of the land, and refused to be driven out because of the cessation of work.
Soon after the work ceased at the Bruce, an arrangement was made with the few remaining miners by which the company permitted them to take out ore on tribute. I do not remember now what the arrangement was but I believe the ore was to be sorted by hand into first and second grade, after being broken up on the spauling floors with hammers, and the miners were to be paid a price per ton for each grade when the company could send a man up in the spring to measure up and settle for the winter’s work.
To give you an idea of the financial conditions in the Bruce at that time, a miner who moved away rented his house to a newly married man for $1.00 per month, with the option to buy it for $25.00 cash, a nice snug little home. This rent was to be paid to me. The young man had to go away to get work and before he returned with enough money, he owed a year’s rent, $12.00. When he came to me to pay it, I suggested he pay me the $25.00 while he was flush and probably the owner would accept it as full payment for the house. He did so and the owner gladly accepted it and signed the document conveying the house the house to the new owner. Of course the transfer of the property did not include the land. The company at that time would not sell any land, but charged their employees 50 cents to $1.00 per year for ground rent, just enough to make it a legal transaction and prevent the company from evicting the owner of the house and at the same time prevent the owner from claiming title to the land after ten years possession.
After the miners had been for some time at work in the mine on the new plan and had immense piles of selected ore one on the spauling floor, the part of the mine at which they were working caved in and the ore and floors all disappeared in a cavity about four or five hundred feet in length and the hard work of many months was engulfed beyond recovery, and Bruce Mines lay idle as far as mining was concerned for fully twenty years thereafter.
Fortunately the cave in occurred in the evening after the miners had quit work for the day. I was working a t Mark’s Bros. store at the time and was nearing the store to finish my day’s work, after having had my supper, when I heard the rumble and felt the earth tremble and thought it was an earth quake but in a short time John Watson who lived nearest to the cave in came down and told us about the occurrence which he then feared was the end of Bruce Mines as far as mining was concerned, but were all happy that there was no loss of life, and while the miners had lost many months of hard work at a time when they could least afford it, I did not hear a complaint, but on every hand I did hear expressions of great thankfulness that the cave in occurred at a time when no lives were endangered.
While the company charged a ground rent of 50 cents to a dollar per year for the land occupied by the miner’s homes, there was a higher rate for buildings used for other purposes such as hotels, stores or any business. Up to a certain time in the history of the mine the company had a monopoly on all business at the Bruce. But there had been at that time a young man of great enterprise and the spirit of adventure and a vision of what could be accomplished. Having a little money and great faith in his ability to make good, he bought a schooner, loaded it with merchandise and one fine day in autumn sailed it into Bruce Mines Bay. He cast his anchor as near the shore as he safely could, and began to turn the schooner into a store, with shelves, etc. for convenience in displaying his goods. By the time he had the vessel fitted up in good order for handling his merchandise conveniently, Jack Frost had safely bridged the space between the ship and the shore.
Business opened with a rush and there began the mercantile career of Thomas Marks, who became one of the foremost and best known business men in the district of Algoma whose business extended from Duck Islands on Lake Huron to Prince Arthurs landing at the head of Lake Superior. His interests included stores, hotels, grain and passenger ships and mines and the extensive business in Port Arthur, under the name of Thos. Marks and Bros. (which later through a merger of interests became Marks, Clavet, Dobie Co. is still possibly the largest and most successful wholesale and retail general business in the District).
Thomas Marks’ advent into Bruce Mines was not without its difficulties. The mining company had too long enjoyed the monopoly of the mercantile business to submit quietly to the innovation of such drastic interference with the old method.
Mr. Marks had been so successful with his schooner he built a store on an immense scow and when it was finished and stocked with merchandise, he propelled it with poles to the shore and had a platform in front of the door which he could lower with a rope and pulley to the ground and allow his customers to the store and by pulling up the platform he was not a trespasser.
After using the drawbridge platform for some time, Mr. Marks decided to build a permanent platform and enlarge the entrance to the store. Just as it was almost completed the officers of the mining company sent men with axes to destroy the platform which they were just on the point of doing when Mr. Marks appeared in the doorway, with a gun in his hand, which probably was not loaded, and he told the men he was justified in protecting his property even to the extent of using firearms and that the company must use the proper legal method to punish him if were violating any law by using the platform.
The men always enjoyed laying off work for a day to go to a funeral, but they hesitated when it promised to possibly be their own and so they refused to destroy the platform. After a conference the company capitulated, as they did not want to be involved in litigation, and the result was that Mr. Marks rented ground for a site and erected a large store in which he carried on a good business. He was soon importing dry goods from England and Scotland and wet goods in casks and puncheons (an eighty gallon barrel) from France and the scow store was used as a warehouse into which I, with others, checked in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods.
Mr. Marks then started the business I have referred to in Port Arthur’s Landing, and the business of Plummer and Marks at the Sault, which Wm. Plummer later bought out entirely and conducted with such great success until his death.
It is just possible that there is a young man in Bruce Mines today with the spirit of adventure and the vision of the late Thos. Marks, who could use the caved in part of Bruce Mines as the basis for an advertisement of the attractions of one of the most beautiful places for a summer resort in Algoma, and by weaving into it the wonderful romantic history of the Bruce for over three quarters of a century could halt and interest the tourists as they speed through this beautiful country and at least show them the cave in and sell them some ice cream and hot dogs. There is nothing impossible to a town which impossible for a town which can give us year after year the best fall fair in the District of Algoma.